The Seatbelt Fallacy

The classic argument for government intervention in the name of protecting us from ourselves is that leaving us to our own free will and choice is too risky.  When it comes to potentially risky behavior this argument is lathered up with the notion that the potential burden on society that our possible personal catastrophes might have are so costly that all measures must be made to prevent them.  In a free market where individuals and groups aren’t shielded from the costs they incur, natural feedback (i.e. accountability) keeps the cumulative burdens on society negligible.

The truth of the matter is, that left to themselves, the majority of individuals usually have common sense.  People are generally smart enough not to run off a cliff together like a herd of buffalo.  However, if someone or some group is wily enough (like Wily E. Coyote in the classic “Road Runner” cartoon) to paint a fake facade before the inevitable chasm then a bunch of people’s normal sense could be misled.  Such is often the result of trust in big government.  For example the recent economic crisis in large part was due to the collapse of the housing market which was led by government intervention in guaranteeing over a trillion dollars in subprime (substantially risky) loans.  Such government intervention shielded people from the normal, natural consequences of their actions, e.g. bankruptcy and/or foreclosure.  Such inevitably led to unnaturally large scale economic disaster.  Even a corrupt government can’t stop the pied piper of reality from getting paid one way or another.

The once new but now classic example of government intervention in the name of protecting us from ourselves is the now almost universal seat belt laws for adults and children alike.  Surely children need protecting, but one has to ask oneself: does the government assume us all to be its children?  Sounds to me like a recipe for disaster.  If we indeed are imbecile enough to be considered children needing governing, then simple math would show a grossly disproportionate number of “children” to “adults”.  You can’t babysit that many “children” with so few adults…unless you adopt a prison system!  Why do we even need seatbelt laws?  Are people really out to maime or kill themselves?  Most certainly not.  Will punishing those who don’t buckle up encourage safe driving or will it just increase the likelihood of seatbelt usage?  Regardless of whether seatbelts truly save lives, the choice to use them should rest with the individual adult rather than be mandated upon them by a nanny state.

In the realm of health care, there are some that advocate a universal government health plan as a cure for the excessive costs of health care upon society.  What is often ignored is the reason that such costs have grown in the first place.  It has been the lack of accountability by individuals and health care payers and providers alike from already excessive socialized medicine plans.  Take for example the individual health care patient.  Suppose an obese individual whose excessive eating leads to health problems which potentially requires costly health care.  If the excessive eater is left to foot his own medical bills then a growth in such expenses might encourage him to improve his health.  However if the taxpayers pay most of his costs for him, then there no direct feedback, unless perhaps society were to publically humiliate him as a bad example and make  his medical records public.  That could open up another can of worms.

In the realm of personal debt, some advocate more government regulation since they fear individuals left to their own devices might somehow incur debt substantial enough to really hurt society economically.  Under the guise of consumer protection, those espousing big government and increasingly hefty rules and regulations focus so much attention on the potential borrower that they fail to recognize that such overprotection may actually be the very cause of the ruin they seek to advert.  They fail to ask what lending practices might lead to the financial ruin of a majority of lenders and borrowers alike.  In a world free from government meddling of the kind and scale that has exacerbated recessions into Depressions great and small, lenders typically don’t lend more money than they could absolutely risk losing.  If a borrower needed more money than one lender felt safe to lend then the borrower would have to go elsewhere for additional funding.  If a borrower began borrowing from more people than was prudent, wouldn’t the lending market naturally become suspicious?  It normally would unless the government stepped in and guaranteed all loans.  If lenders could shift all their risk to the government, then they would have no incentive to only lend as much as they could risk losing, albeit with some minor pain.

The  underlying the fundamental question surrounding this whole issue is: Who is accountable for the individual?  If the individual isn’t accountable for themselves then they indeed might as well be considered children, dependent upon others to choose for them.  If the individual isn’t allowed to personally reap the consequences of their actions, but instead is shielded from such consequences by a seemingly altruistic government,  then both the individual and society are being taxed the most grievous tax indeed.  It is the tax of Disengagement paid by those members of a socialistic Tyranny.  They sacrifice the difference between the rewards or costs exacted by reality and their warped perception of reality that their collective indifference to truth presents to them.

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